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House Chairman Blasts Clinton Retreat on Land Use Fee Increases

March 31, 1993

WASHINGTON (AP) _ An angry chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee says President Clinton is making a ″fundamental mistake″ in dropping his insistence that Congress include land-use fee increases in its budget blueprint.

But a key Senate backer of mining reforms sees no problem with Clinton’s move.

The White House said Tuesday it still was committed to charging higher fees for grazing and mining on federally owned lands, but would pursue those through separate legislative and administrative methods rather than as part of the budget process.

Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said today the White House agreed to shift strategy after getting ″strong opposition″ from Western senators who made it ″clear we needed to work with them.″

″We can maintain the integrity of the budget package and achieve (mining and grazing) policy reform by doing it this way,″ she said.

That didn’t mollify Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the House committee chairman. He said Clinton’s decision was ″a serious undermining of those efforts″ toward reform of longtime government policies on public lands.

″This is a fundamental mistake by the administration,″ said Miller, a longtime proponent of reducing federal subsidies on Western lands.

However, Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., a leading proponent of mining law reform, said he did not object to the move. He said it would allow more opportunity to debate broader questions in mining law reform, such as environmental reclamation issues he is pursuing.

At issue are Clinton’s proposals to increase grazing fees on federally owned rangelands and to make mining companies pay royalties for the minerals they take from federal lands. The debate is over whether the revenues expected from those changes should be nailed into the budget that Congress passes, or should be dealt with separately.

″The administration’s policy has not changed. The process has changed some,″ Myers said. ″We’re still committed to pursuing reform in grazing, mining and below-cost timber sales.″

The administration initially had touted the subsidy cuts as an important component of deficit-reduction efforts that urged sacrifices by everyone. But Clinton subsequently bowed to pressure from Western senators who objected to slashing the subsidies and wanted the issue out of the budget process.

″It was very clear that the desire to have substantial deficit reduction and everybody making a sacrifice is what was driving everybody,″ Miller said in an interview.

Removing the issue from the budget considerations would ″take the pressure off people to vote for the national interest versus the special interest,″ he said.

Don Hellman of the Wilderness Society agreed.

″It’s much easier to pass these politically painful changes in these federal land subsidies when they are part of a larger package where everyone is being asked to sacrifice,″ he said.

Administration officials portrayed the shift as a way to buy more time to debate the use of Western lands and draw in broader environmental issues.

Western Democratic senators, who met with Clinton two weeks ago to press their case, cheered the decision.

″President Clinton has recognized the adverse impact that his plan would have on Montana and other Western states and has moved boldly to address this injustice,″ said Sen. Max Baucus of Montana.

John Knebel, president of the American Mining Congress, said the move indicates the administration ’has taken into consideration the impact its proposals would have on the economies of Western states.″

Clinton’s plan called for raising $48 million over four years by increasing grazing fees, and $471 million by charging royalties for gold, silver and other minerals that private companies mine from federal lands.

To meet the mining revenue target, the administration had proposed a 12.5 percent royalty on gross mining revenues, despite furious opposition from the mining industry and its congressional supporters.

Increasing grazing fees can be handled without congressional action, although Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is contemplating giving credits to ranchers for improvements to the range land. That approach may require legislation.

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